How Trump can bridge the racial divide

What is Trump's path forward with the CBC?
What is Trump's path forward with the CBC?

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Story highlights

  • Sophia A. Nelson: President Donald Trump has thus far failed to make inroads in the African-American community
  • But if Trump can build critical relationships with black leaders and constituents, he can make great strides in bridging the racial divide

Sophia A. Nelson is an award-winning author and journalist and former House GOP committee counsel from 1997-1999. She is the author of the new book, "E Pluribus One: Rediscovering Our Founders' Vision for a United America." The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)On Tuesday, President Donald Trump honored Black History Month by visiting the newly-minted National Museum of African American History and Culture. Amid the fanfare and praise that Trump's visit was "a step in the right direction," one question still remains: Is he serious about fixing the racial divide in this country?

With a rise in anti-Semitic and racist incidents since the November election, the President has come under increasing pressure to respond. And given Trump's comments on the sorry state of black America, he should feel an urgency to act. On the campaign trail, Trump often invoked the phrase "living in hell," when describing US inner cities and the poverty and gun violence that often plagues black communities in them.
Sophia A. Nelson
And upon taking office last month, the President threatened Chicago officials on Twitter, declaring that "If Chicago doesn't fix the horrible 'carnage' going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!"
Now 30 days into the new Trump administration, where is he with black Americans, and where does he need to go?
Let me start by saying I do not think Trump is a racist. I think he is ignorant when it comes to people of color, their experiences and how to properly engage with them. That ignorance was on full display earlier this month when he seemed not to know who Frederick Douglass was, and then, during his Feb. 16 press conference at the White House, had a shocking and awkward nationally televised exchange with veteran White House reporter April Ryan.
Ryan asked the President a question about his promise to improve urban communities. He praised her question as "very professional and very good," and when she followed up with another question on whether he planned to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus, he replied: "Do you want to set up the meeting? Are they friends of yours?"
Trump: I'd love to meet with black caucus
Trump: I'd love to meet with black caucus

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A day later, Trump fired Shermichael Singleton, one of the few African Americans in his administration and a political appointee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, following a criticism Singleton made of Trump in an October 2016 op-ed. Notably, Trump has not fired any white employees for gaffes in the press.
Like your uncle making inappropriate comments at family functions, Trump publicly says predictably offensive things about women, blacks and others, with apparently little clue that the world around him has changed since he was a teenager.
These displays of cultural ignorance serve as a huge barrier for the President. But they can be overcome with a bit of self-reflection and some additional attention given to the voices of black constituents.
Until earlier this month, it seemed Trump might actually be poised to make inroads with the African-American community (and the Congressional Black Caucus), in light of news that his administration was considering increasing support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), coupled with his avowed focus on creating jobs, safer communities and better educational opportunities for African Americans.
In order for these changes and improvements to happen, Trump, however, has to get out of his own way. He must find the self-discipline to study, prepare and familiarize himself with the ways of Washington DC power brokers and the constituents they answer to.
If he has any shot of reaching out to African-Americans, in particular, he must begin with the Congressional Black Caucus, which represents black members in Congress. He must treat reporters like Ryan and others who represent black media with respect. He must sit with black media outlets and talk directly to their audiences, and then he should listen -- really listen -- to their thoughts and fears.
Panelists spar over Congressional Black Caucus
Panelists spar over Congressional Black Caucus

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Panelists spar over Congressional Black Caucus 04:27
Of course, Trump can't go it alone. Omarosa Manigault, Trump's director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison, Dr. Ben Carson, Trump's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development nominee and other black advisors need to do a better job preparing the President to speak on issues of diversity. They let him make a fool of himself by not knowing who Frederick Douglass was, or worse, how to get in touch with the CBC.
But there's much more Trump can do to better serve African Americans. For example, he could go on an urban listening tour with HUD Secretary Ben Carson (once he is confirmed) and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Or he could make time to appear on black TV and radio networks and shows, like WHUR in DC, TV One, BET, the Tom Joyner Morning Show, etc.
He could engage with black college presidents, business leaders and state and local officials who can help him understand the realities on the ground and inform the policy recommendations he makes.
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And he could hire African-Americans with more political experience than former reality TV star Omarosa, who has no real alliances in the black community to help her succeed.
Ironically, Trump is a man who could probably be a decent president if he would settle down, take issues seriously and focus on the job at hand. The CBC could be an ally on HBCU and urban reform. In fact, Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings and others from the CBC have indicated they are looking forward to meeting with the President and working with him.
Bottom line: If Trump wants to fix America's great racial divide, he needs to stop being a roadblock to his own success.